On Iran and Obama, How Bibi will Decide – Exclusive Interview with Eyal Gabbai, Part 1
by Dovid Efune
Up until six months ago, Eyal Gabbai was the Director-General of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. Working with the Prime Minister for up to 18 hours a day, he was a key member of Netanyahu’s inner circle.
Today, Prime Minister Netanyahu will meet with President Obama in the White House for historic discussions on Iran, as the regime’s nuclear clock is ticking. Tonight, he will address an adoring crowd of over 13,0o0 at the annual AIPAC policy conference taking place at the Washington D.C. Convention Center.
Days ago The Algemeiner sat down with Mr. Gabbai for a wide ranging exclusive interview on the Iran talks, the relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, insider details on how Netanyahu’s decision making process on a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities will be conducted and who the key players are.
Other issues discussed include, if a Republican President would handle the Iran situation differently than the current administration, what an American response to a unilateral Israeli strike might look like, what the Israelis will look to secure in today’s talks and what the Americans will be looking for.
DE: So when did your relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu start?
EG: I’ve known Netanyahu for 15 years. When he was first Prime Minister I was adviser to the minister of justice, and that’s how I met him. Then I became the head of the economic division of the prime minister’s office for Netanyahu.
We worked together up to when he lost the election in ’99. Then I went to the private sector. I was V.P. in a communications company, and then in 2002 Sharon appointed me to the government. In 2003 Netanyahu became minister of finance. Then we worked closely together until he resigned. He actually resigned on the very same day I had my son’s brit (circumcision), and he was supposed to be there. An hour before the brit I get a call, “I will not be able to come; I’m holding a press conference right now,” and everyone who came was speaking about Netanyahu’s resignation because of the ‘disengagement’ at the time.
DE: How many people would you say are in the prime minister’s inner circle, so to speak?
EG: It’s a very small group. We have about five to six people.
DE: So do you think that you would spend more time with the prime minister than his family?
EG: Yes. In the close circle of the prime minister, you spend more time because you work about 18 hours a day.
DE: So please run me through the process of decision making in the Prime Minister’s office about Iran. How does the process of decision making work? What is he going to be looking to find out? Who are the people that will be advising in this process?
EG: First of all, it’s questions or facts. You need to have the facts in place and then form a decision. Part of the process is that now the intelligence services will compile reports before the meetings with Netanyahu, because they need to know exactly where things stand.
DE: So that’s the first thing that Netanyahu will ask his staff – “I need all the facts. Give me all the information.”
EG: Especially the intelligence, the Mossad. He will ask, okay, how far are they? Where are their facilities? Then the question is, what can be done?
How far along are they and what measures or steps do they still need to take in order to develop an atomic device? On the other hand, what alternative options do we have? Okay, we asked for paralyzing sanctions; the current ones probably do not paralyze Iran, because they’re continuing their preparation. What else do we have? What other sanctions could we ask the world to impose on Iran? What’s the time frame that we have, that will also allow room to take other actions? What are the other actions? If they are military actions, how should they be done? a question that would be directed to the chief of staff. What is the probability for these actions to succeed? After all these facts are presented, he has a very small cabinet, including himself and Barak (Editors note: Defense Minister Ehud Barak). He relies heavily on Barak; they are very well coordinated.
DE: They have a very good relationship?
EG: Excellent relationship. To think that the two of them were enemies in 1999 is amazing.
DE: What about Moshe Yaalon? Isn’t Iran strategy among his responsibilities?
EG: He is strategic affairs, but it’s not his sole responsibility. He’s part of this cabinet and, of course, he’s part of the discussions. Netanyahu listens to him, and at the end of the day they’ll try to build a consensus or a vast majority within this group of seven ministers. Then they are formally supposed to bring it to the security cabinet, which has about 14 ministers within it.
DE: What are they called, the small cabinet?
EG: ‘Hash’vi’iah’, the seven, because there are seven ministers.
In discussions over Iran it will only be the military secretary, which is Yohanan Locker, and Yaakov Amidror, head of the security council. These are the two that will be involved in the details.
DE: So what will be on the agenda now in the meeting between Netanyahu and Obama (Editors note: taking place today)?
EG: First of all, there will be a clarification of facts. It’s just not possible to make decisions without knowing where the Iranians stand now, what their reaction to the latest sanctions will be, and how fast they will take place?
DE: Do you think the Americans and the Israelis will have a similar intelligence analysis, or do you think Israel will say, ‘We have six months’ and America will say, ‘We have six years?’
EG: I think there will not be such a difference. There might be a difference, but very limited. For example, Israel will say six months and the Americans will say 100 percent more, a year. 100 percent more, is double. Nevertheless, it’s only six months’ difference. So they’ll both agree that if further action should be taken it should be now, not in two years from now.
So I don’t think that Netanyahu will ask for the Americans’ contribution; on the other hand, he will need coordination.
DE: In what sense?
EG: You know, there’s a rumor that Israeli airplanes are supposed to go through many countries, and the Americans can and sometimes will be able to shoot a plane that flies through those countries. The coordination needs to be there in order to make sure that there are no accidents.
DE: That they’re aware whose planes they are?
EG: Yeah, exactly, to make sure. So even if there are demands – do you coordinate weeks in advance? Do you coordinate on the same day, the same hour? What exactly are you saying to the Americans, who will probably ask you not to do anything without telling them first. They’ll probably say that in one way or another. This is underneath the open discussions in which they’ll probably discuss sanctions. Could there be more sanctions, what kind of sanctions and do we have enough time for them to work?
When Netanyahu speaks to the Americans, I’m sure he’s not telling them, “Okay, we’re going to use 22 F-15s that are going to take off from Israel at 15:25 and they’re going to use the southeast route.” It’s not like that, certainly not days or weeks in advance.
DE: Not in specific terms, in general terms?
EG: They’ll know in general terms, and the timing will be very close to the operation hour in order that it will not leak and no-one else will find out.
DE: What do you think the Israelis will be looking to come away with from President Obama? (Editors note: in today’s meeting)
EG: I think a time frame, that if by a certain date we aren’t able to bring the operation to a halt, then it means that we can no longer wait, and we need to take further action.
DE: Do you think they have a chance of getting it?
EG: I think that at the end of the day the Americans need to remember one thing. No matter what, if Israel would strike Iran, the world will think that it wasn’t Israel by itself, that there were many Americans involved as well. It’s not a question of what Obama will say to the world; this is what many will believe. So it’s very tricky. Although they did not participate, the world will perceive that they did as an ally of Israel.
DE: How big of a consideration for the Israelis is the Obama administration’s position? Once all the facts are on the table. Or is Israel’s interest the only question?
In terms of Iran, Iran is definitely a problem of the world. It’s not just an Israeli problem.
DE: Right. But the question is, who’s going to deal with it?
EG: On the other hand, Hitler was also a problem for the world, and the world stood and tried to fight Hitler, but until they succeeded we paid the price by half of the Jewish people being killed. So the idea that it’s not just an Israeli problem doesn’t say that Israel will not suffer from it the most or that we’ll care the most – or not the most, but Israel will suffer from it severely.
Netanyahu has many factors on the table. One factor is, is there an alternative? Can paralyzing sanctions be enforced? The other question is, can a military action not just be implemented but bring the operation to a halt or delay it for many years, because if all you can earn is a delay of six months, then actually you will have done nothing. The third question is, what will be the outcome in terms of military retaliation by Iran, because it certainly will not be only Iran by itself. It will be Hizbullah and Hamas.
The last question is, what the international reaction will be? I believe that if Netanyahu will succeed, the international reaction will be positive. If he’ll fail, then the international reaction – is not the least, but it’s not the most important consideration, because if we try to strike and we do not succeed, it’s a very expensive price to pay.
DE: So you’re saying that the American response is really just bundled in with the general world response; it doesn’t have any special consideration?
EG: No, it’s certainly part of the overall world reaction.
DE: How big of a factor is America’s position? I mean, is it something that can torpedo Israel’s decision?
EG: No, I don’t believe it’s big – they don’t have a veto. And I don’t think that the relationship is one whereby Netanyahu will ask for their permission. On the other hand, they’ll factor in negative opposition. But nevertheless, if Netanyahu will feel, I believe, that there are no other alternatives on the table, he will act. It’s not like three years ago when Netanyahu came to office and demanded paralyzing sanctions, that if enforced at the time, after half a year, a year, you could evaluate the outcome and decide if you want to raise the level of sanctions. We don’t have this time. The timeline is very short.
DE: So is it universally accepted in Israel, that a nuclear Iran is months away?
EG: I think in Israel they pretty much count on Netanyahu, and they trust him as someone who’s always preaching about the Iranian nuclear operation and that he knows what he’s doing. Certainly, the idea that it’s he and Barak together is a source of confidence to many of them, because they’re perceived as very experienced.
DE: So the public trusts their evaluation, and they think that a nuclear Iran is months away?
EG: It’s not years. I think everyone knows this – maybe someone will say closer to a year or something like that, but I think everyone agrees that it’s really, really close.
DE: On a personal level, do you know anything about the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama? And is that a factor even in making these decisions?
EG: What happened or didn’t happen at the beginning of their terms is no longer necessarily influencing their relationship. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that they’re both political figures, professionals, leaders of their countries. I don’t think that it influences them so much what the world will think. It’s important, but this is not the most important factor, especially when you talk about a decision that would need to be taken in the short term. It’s not a matter in which Obama can say, ‘Drag it for another year and we’ll see if Netanyahu will lose the election or not.’
They’re both campaigning, both having elections coming up, but both know that these decisions will be made in their current terms. I think they both have one thing in common – they’re both looking for history; they’re making history. They believe they’re making history. I think Obama and Netanyahu understand that Iran is a historical question.
DE: So you’re convinced that this issue will be dealt with by the American elections. Do you think it will be dealt with on this trip?
EG: I think it’s very unique and very rare to bring the Prime Minister and the President to a meeting. Certainly you do not want to signal – let’s say, for example, out of the blue the Prime Minister of Israel is flying to meet the President. It signals that something special is going on.
Of course, in later stages they’ll have phone calls, they’ll have their ministers going back and forth, secretaries going back and forth, but on such a high level, this is a very historical and important week.
DE: Do you think it’s possible that the Israelis will try something with Iran, and the Americans will actually try and prevent it once it’s actually happening?
EG: I don’t think so.
DE: They’ll just state their position until Israel acts, and then when it acts they will be supportive?
EG: I think they’ll urge Israel not to act, because they think it’s too early, and they’ll actually even, not threaten Israel, but certainly make it clear that there will be a price to pay if Israel doesn’t coordinate.
DE: They want to know about it?
EG: Not just know; they want to be able to veto it.
But at the end of the day Netanyahu cannot let Obama veto the attack on Iran, and if the attack will take place – as always, the question will be the outcome. Assuming that Israel was able to destroy everything forever, then I think we’ll get a lot of support from the United States.
DE: Public support from Obama or just behind the scenes?
EG: No, both public and political figures and probably the President himself. On the other hand, if it will be a failure…..
DE: What’s considered a failure?
EG: Either that the nuclear program is only delayed for a couple of months or a year or something like that, and Iran turns out to be very aggressive, then the administration will be very, very upset.
DE: What do you think the ramifications could be? What would the President do? especially if it happens before the U.S. elections.
Let’s say, for example, that they’ll cut part of the defense aid we get. They can do anything. They could say, ‘Okay, if that’s the situation, we will vote with the Palestinians on the question of recognizing a Palestinian state.’ This is a problem.
DE: In Israel President Obama has a very low approval rating. Do you think that a Republican President would approach things differently?
EG: I think so far the history of our relationship with the United States of America shows that it’s not a question of a single president or party in the relationship, it goes deep, beyond personal relationships or leaders’ decisions. I think this administration even shows a commitment to the safety of Israel. For example, the question of the Palestinian Authority becoming a member of the U.N. and some other issues.
DE: Some people would say that’s a minimum. I mean, it’s expected. It’s not a gift.
EG: I understand what you’re saying, but I think that even when it’s expected, whenever you see it being done correctly, I think it should be recognized.
DE: So you think let’s say, if Mitt Romney was the President, he would also want veto power on Israel’s Iran actions?
EG: We have a phrase in Hebrew, ‘d’varim she’ro’im m’sham lo ro’im m’kan,’ things that you see from there, you cannot see from here. Every prime minister who steps in the office keeps saying this phrase. I think the same applies in this case.
DE: Obama’s not making all the decisions, you’re saying?
EG: Even if Romney or whoever, will become the President, it’s not just him. You have the Pentagon; you have the Secretary of State. You have so many people, so many advisers.
DE: But they work for the President?
EG: Yes, but you know they pressure towards certain policy, and they have some significance. It’s not like he can say, ‘I heard you all; it’s such rubbish. I believe etc…..’ It doesn’t work that way. He needs to gain some, not all, but some supporters from the group.
DE: Do you think the current administration’s demands regarding Iran would happen under any American government?
EG: Yes, I think what they’re expecting is, that if we’re truly allies and so on, we should make a mutual decision of how and when to act. I’m not sure it will be granted to them, but some kind of veto maybe.
DE: How do you think this will end, and what do you think will happen?
EG: I think the time frame is pretty clear. They are moving fast. It’s a question of months, maybe up to a year on the one hand. On the other hand the elections could influence this.
DE: Do you think sanctions can still work?
EG: I think we’re almost at a dead end.
DE: So could we see an Israeli attack soon?
EG: No, I don’t think Israel will attack soon. What Netanyahu wishes most from the meeting, it’s to come out and say, ‘Okay, they’ve frozen all the assets, frozen everything, and you cannot buy oil from them, cannot sell them oil,’ and bring real paralyzing sanctions.
DE: And accepting a nuclear Iran, that’s not an option?
EG: It is known that a nuclear Iran will threaten to use the nuclear device. This is not the main issue. The main issue is let’s assume that something erupts with Hizbullah in the North, they start firing rockets, and we are forced to invade Lebanon, for example, and the Iranians say that if we do not withdraw from Lebanon within 24 hours, they’re going to fire an atomic bomb at us. What do we do then? Withdraw? Fight with Iran? Ask the Americans to send us atomic bombs as fast as possible?